With the force of an uprising not seen since the latter years of the 18th century, the entire population of the English-speaking Internet recently came together to hate the most recent commercial for Pepsi-Cola, that high fructose corn syrup-laden concoction that Americans used to drink by the truckload, back before we started doing yoga. This commercial was so detestable, people from across every demographic and political persuasion linked virtual arms against it.
By now you’ve likely seen the ad, which stars Kendall Jenner, a supermodel whose name begins with a K, which means she is also a Kardashian. In a twist on reality, Kendall plays a supermodel, stuck on the dreary set of a photo shoot. Even as she strikes pose after pose in her blonde wig, her face slathered with cosmetics, the viewer can see that Kendall is unfulfilled, that her life is not all it is cracked up to be. Selling fashion stuff to consumers via visual storytelling and the manipulation of our desires suddenly seems slightly immoral, and Kendall is beginning to have a glimmering sense that there is much more to life than her unimaginably glamorous existence. Then it happens: even as Kendall is having her picture taken, she becomes aware of a crowd of people streaming past her, a parade of ethnically diverse and inexplicably attractive people joyfully moving along in what closely resembles a protest of sorts. Whether these people are protesting excessive incarceration rates, the dearth of agave-sweetened gummy bears on the market, or a recent spate of incidents in which villagers have been drawing lots to find out which one of them will be sacrificed is no matter to her. The point is: they are protesting, they are attractive, they are happy, and very few of them appear to be part of the system in which she finds herself a cog. Plus, the protesters are waving flags and carrying banners with meaningful graphics affixed to them. Even more thrilling, their pigmentation varies, and among them is a cellist, who is not at all bad-looking and is capable of carrying his gigantic instrument strapped to his back.We like to think we’re doing good, out in the street shouting down whichever social ill our friends have brought to our attention, but the reality might just be closer to the Pepsi ad.
From among the crowd, the cellist catches Kendall’s eye. He nods at her as if to say: join us. This is just the encouragement Kendall needs. In an instant, she leaves it all behind: the trappings of fashion are ripped away as she pulls the off her blonde wig and wipes the smear of bright red lipstick off her face. She dashes toward the parade of protesters. In one swift move Kendall morphs from being Marilyn Monroe to being the Sally Field of high-waisted jeans, her brown hair dangling around her face. In abandoning the photo shoot, Kendall brings the artifice of her life to a halt, refusing for one second longer to use the socially imposed standard of beauty to peddle crap to the poor slobs who now surround her. She is one of us, one of the people. Ain’t nothing going to stop her now as she overcomes.
Then, a crisis: the protesters are confronted by the prospect of authority figures, cop-esque men wearing riot gear-type apparel and blocking the parade route. No one knows what to do, how to move forward. No one but Kendall. Overwhelmed with the humanity of it all, Kendall grabs a can of Pepsi. She approaches the fuzz as if to stuff the can in the barrel of the police-ish man’s weapon, because it’s 1967 all over again except now it’s different. But the authority figure doesn’t seem to be carrying a weapon, so instead Kendall does what any red-blooded American whose citizenship papers are in order would do: she gives the man a Pepsi. Drink it, Kendall indicates. What choice does he have? He drinks it, because it is a Pepsi after all, a delicious, delicious Pepsi handed to him by an attractive girl, even if she could use a little lipstick. The man guzzles it and the crowd goes wild. Everyone is thrilled. Capitalism has triumphed, and triumphed in such a heartfelt way. For a while, our way of life looked to be touch-and-go as the protesters marched along the parade route in opposition to something, but thanks to Kendall, the fact that a product might take only three cents to produce but is sold for approximately $1.25 per unit in this great country of ours prevailed.
This is pretty much where the commercial leaves off. Oh yes, the ad also includes a girl in a hijab running around with a camera, dancers dancing in the streets, and free barrels of Pepsi on ice for the party-protest.
In response to the universal contempt for the ad, Pepsi pulled it, after spending a few days feebly trying to defend it. But the exponential power of social media means that there is no way something this viral can ever be contained, and the ad is destined to be viewed again and again as a primer on the pitfalls of co-opting the zeitgeist to sell stuff. Also, it will be viewed again and again just so we can remember how much we viscerally hate it. Which is an important function of the Internet: it’s a repository of cultural hatred.
We live in an era in which every act of consumerism has a moral component. Is your coffee direct trade? Do you know where your lettuce came from? Were any children harmed in the manufacture of your shirt? In making these moral calculations, we cannot fool ourselves: drinking Pepsi falls at the vice end of the spectrum. More to the point, PepsiCo can’t fool us: we know that drinking a can of Pepsi is not good for us. It is not good for anyone, even if the people holding the cans of Pepsi are laughing uproariously while guzzling, or doing good things while simultaneously enjoying Pepsi, like holding a can in one hand and neutering stray cats with the other.
But while we’re being honest, we need to admit that the real problem with the Pepsi ad is that it hits a little too close to home. However inadvertently, Pepsi exposed a real problem with our moral sensibilities. We like to think we’re doing good, out in the street shouting down whichever social ill our friends have brought to our attention, but the reality might just be closer to the Pepsi ad. We may not be able to relate to Kendall Jenner’s bank account or socially imposed standard of beauty, but we sure can relate to her apparent need to make a difference in the world. The uncomfortable truth is, this desire manifests itself for us in the same way it does for Kendall Jenner in the ad: as nothing more than hanging out in front of a peace sign, taking selfies in between swigs of Pepsi. Or Red Bull. Or Jamba Juice, or whatever our overpriced drink of choice may be.
Being an American by definition means living a life of relative ease compared to most human beings in the world. It provides a weird sort of tension between too much and not enough. Too much stuff, not enough significance. Maybe we hate the Pepsi ad for reasons other than the more obvious ones: its vapidity, un-ironic consumerism, excessive denim. Maybe we hate it because we’re a little too much like Kendall after all. We are all Kardashians now. Pass the Pepsi and drink up.